The Game Writing Club
by Scott Nichols
This is an incredibly sad thing to read: an aspiring writer is forced to reconsider their passion as a career. Though perhaps what is more sad is how often it happens without any blog post to mark the occasion. Having questioned the viability of writing as a career choice more times than I can count over the past 2 years (heck, I think just yesterday was the last time I did so), I feel for him. And considering the caliber of the average “help for aspiring writers” advice being offered, I feel for him even more.
This is difficult, because I want more than anything to respond to his piece, but I fear that any attempt to do so will be seen as arrogant, condescending, mean-spirited, and just downright rude. But he raises some interesting issues that I would at the very least like to provide a second perspective to. I have no illusions that anything I say will actually be useful advice to other aspiring writers, it’s just something to get off my chest. This is my personal blog after all.
Christian Higley called games writing a “club,” and perhaps there is some truth to that. However, I think the way I would define it as a club is quite different from how he does. His club definition is one of exclusion, which it can certainly seem to be when first starting out. I wrote for GayGamer.net for 2 and a half years on a volunteer basis, sending pitches out to the bigger sites almost every day in hopes of breaking in to writing as a career. It wasn’t until the ever-wonderful Kat Bailey at GamePro took a chance on me to write about homosexuality in Mass Effect 3 that things took off. And even then, it wasn’t as if editors were suddenly responding to my emails. It wasn’t until 2 months after my first GamePro feature of constantly sending emails that their reviews editor gave me my first assignment. That was just within the same publication, it wasn’t until 2 more months after that that I landed an assignment for a feature with a new outlet, and yet another 2 months before writing my first review at another new one. I strongly believe that my ever-growing portfolio at that time helped, but it certainly wasn’t an instantanious “hey, you’re one of us now” across the whole industry. Even now that I’m fairly better established I’m still struggling with each pitch to a new outlet.
And yet, my “club” definition for games writers comes from a sense of inclusiveness. Somewhat surprisingly, that inclusiveness comes from other freelance writers, the people who should be my hated competition for each and every assignment. Instead I consider them my closest friends. They’d help steer me toward the right editors to contact at any given site, or give pointers on how to target pitches. And as I talked to them more and got to know them, the writers I once idolized became a whole lot more human.
Like Christian, I thought people who were writing freelance already had it all figured out. They were getting consistent work, so they must be successful in making a living as a writer! But that’s just not the truth. Many of them have second or third jobs aside from their writing (I recently started as second job of my own), and talk about, as Christian put it in his article, “drinking problems, crippling social anxieties, self-hatred, depression, or involuntary predilection towards general fuck-upery” on a fairly regular basis. Twitter for me, and it seems for many other freelance writers as well, is just as much a support group as it is a networking tool. When pitch #874 comes back with a series of not interesteds or no replies, it is vital to have those friends who have been there and can understand exactly what you are going through. Maybe they’ll even know an editor you hadn’t thought of who would be more interested in your topic. From the sound of it, Christian didn’t have that, or at least enough of it.
As for the particular advice that Christian says he received, that’s actually some of the best advice out there for an aspiring writer. “Don’t even try” is the barometer of advice. Writing about games is hard, inconsistent work that pays like shit, and someone thinking sanely about their career should avoid it. It’s self-selecting advice that weeds out those merely interested in it and those who will endure the numerous hardships involved to succeed. It should be noted that success does not mean the end of hardships. More important, though, there’s the business-minded advice. There is a very good reason he received mostly business advice rather than writing advice: few writers took business classes or consider themselves as a business. At least starting out. This was a mistake I made getting started, and got paid less than I probably should have for some assignments or wasted money on attending events without thinking whether it was financially viable. It is a point that recently is being driven home quite clearly as I fill out my taxes and owe more than I was expecting because I’m considered self-employed. If it’s not something you’re aware of as a writer, it’s an area of advice you should get immediately acquainted with. And if you’re starting out and passionate about writing, there’s a good chance it’s not an area you know very well yet.
But even with the importance of business advice, he also received no actual writing advice. There is, as I see it, a very good reason for that too. An aspiring writer won’t receive writing advice because the assumption is you already know how to write. That’s why you want to be a writer, right? Writing is the easy part. It’s the business of it – pitching, networking, building relationships with editors, knowing the right editors, and just maintaining yourself as a business – that most beginning writers struggle with.
There is also the fact that, for professional writing, I’ve found it’s a far more valuable skill to be a versatile writer than a good one (though admittedly to be versatile you must first be good). Each site that I write for has it’s own style guide, so even the sentence structure I use tends to change from site to site. The idea of general writing advice simply doesn’t work, since that advice won’t apply to every site. Hell, sites can’t even build a consensus on whether they’re writing about videogames or video games. The only piece of writing advice I could offer that would apply universally is to single-space after periods. Editors hate double spacing after a period.
The last point I want to say is the elephant in the room: how hard was he trying? Now, I don’t mean to question his passion or work ethic, or anything of the sort. I’m just noticing that the immediate response to that article on twitter was for several editors, some of whom I have worked with for freelance assignments, was: “who is this person? He’s never sent me a pitch email.” I admit it irks me a little when someone considers gaming writers to be an exclusive “club” without actually talking to the people who could grant membership.
Games writers most certainly can be a club, it’s just a matter of knowing what that club means. Being a “member” doesn’t mean you’ve made it. Hell, I still don’t consider myself to have “made it” yet. The club’s entry fee is simply a twitter account and contributing to the various conversations games writers have on a daily basis. There are no guarantees beyond that, but there are also no limits to who can join.
To end this on a positive note, I would like to give a special thanks to Michael Rose, Brad Gallaway, Rowan Kaiser, Kat Bailey, Jason Wilson, Matthew Reynolds, Phil Kollar, Susan Arendt, Taylor Cocke, Mitch Dyer, Francesca Reyes, Brittany Vincent, Mattie Brice, Nathan Meunier, Kevin VanOrd, and countless other writers and editors who have been the friends and support I have grown to rely on in my own writing endeavors. This is just a small fraction of the list of people I owe tremendous thanks to, so if you aren’t on it please don’t be angry with me. If we know each other and you’re a writer, you belong on this list as well.